I first met Rebecca when she was 14 and arrested for prostitution. Although most youth offenders charged with non-violent crimes remain at home while on probation, that wasn't an option for Rebecca. Both of her parents had substance abuse problems and lengthy prison records. Her grandfather tried his best with her, but a sick man in his 80's was no match for this street-smart teenager. Over the next few years, until she "aged out" of the system, I treated her like any other kid on probation, put her in custody when she didn't follow the rules, offered her counseling, encouraged her to go to school, but none of that helped her. I slowly learned about the reality of her life: her pimp expected her to return to him as soon as she was released from custody. She risked extreme violence if she did not report back to him as soon as she was free; the burn scars on her chest attested to that. On one occasion, he actually waited outside the courthouse to claim his property as soon as I took her off of electronic monitoring. She was his favorite, most lucrative girl and he vowed to find her anywhere. When I sent her to a safe haven in Phoenix, he picked her up within 2 days and put her back on the streets of Los Angeles within hours.
Shortly before her 18th birthday, I sent her to yet another group home. She left after 3 days, which was no surprise. The difference this time around was that she came back to us within a week, voluntarily. She wasn't back on the street, hadn't been arrested or physically beaten. Her spirit had been crushed though. This time when she returned to her trafficker/pimp, he rejected her. He told her that, at 17, she was too old to work for him. He had found another 14 year old and she was making lots of money for him. Rebecca was hurt and angry and told us that she wanted to kill him. I saw the silver lining: she had come back asking for help.
I am a court commissioner in Los Angeles and supervise juveniles who are on probation for anything from petty theft to murder. For many years, I assumed the girls before me who had been arrested for prostitution had chosen to be on the streets, that they saw this as a way to support themselves when their families failed to do so. Then I became aware of the repeated violence and trauma inflicted upon them over many years, by family members, trusted adults and gang-entrenched pimps. As a system, we focused on their faults and failures, completely overlooking how decades of poverty, community violence and our over-sexualized media helped to shape them. These children are the latest generation of "throw-away" kids that families, communities and child welfare systems don't know how to help. And so they end up in the juvenile justice system, charged with a crime that, arguably, they legally cannot commit. Because if you are too young to consent to sex it follows, logically, that you are too young to consent to sell sex. We lock them up, take away their ability to make any decisions for themselves and label them with some of the most shameful terms used to describe humans: "prostitutes" and "criminals."
In Los Angeles, some of us are trying a new approach. Very dedicated and specially trained probation officers, attorneys, counselors, group home staff and advocates meet weekly, in a collaborative, non-adversarial court setting and assess each girl individually. Many of the girls are traumatized, distrusting and downright prickly teenagers. They also have incredible talents to express themselves, to re-invent themselves and to survive. The common goal for each girl is for her to believe that she has the option to be something else, anything else, because despite the criminal and social label, she is not a prostitute. Progress is slow and setbacks can be heart-breaking, but we eagerly celebrate their successes, small and large. Some days, we celebrate graduations. Others days, we rejoice when a girl walks away from her pimp, or escapes, and asks for help. As for Rebecca, we are making plans to celebrate her 20th birthday. We count her as one of our successes.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Rights4Girls in conjunction with The McCain Institute. Join us in our campaign No Such Thing--that there is no such thing as child prostitute, only victims and survivors or child rape. For more information on No SuchThing, read here.